The Software is the Story.

I'm a bit of a techno-laggard. In the past 15 years, I've owned only 2 or 3 cell phones. I'm floating within a small eddy of a large cultural river; a river in which masses of new gadgetry flow rapidly from the mountain of conception to a sea of obsolescence. This is, of course, part the nature of technology.  But it's also because our big river contains a strong undercurrent of "What's new and exciting ?" It's fun these days to buzz about the next generation smart phones or gulp from arbitrary streams of media on demand.

One might be tempted to paint the software development process with strokes from that brush. It can be tempting to intuit that, by osmosis, all things info-technological could or should exhibit a similar life cycle. In the heady days of online software "space exploration", we often try to move faster and faster simply because it is technically possible. From the dawning of instant connectivity, we've been bombarded with a ton of new buzzwords, new platforms, new technologies and new memes. It's been a rush; for a few, even a gold rush. In that climate, it's easy to forget that solid, high quality software still needs focused attention, and time to evolve. There's actually no instant 'app' for that.

it's easy to forget that solid, high quality software still needs focused attention, and time to evolve. There's actually no instant 'app' for that.

Consider that much of the stuff in the Internet universe belongs in virtual landfill. The Internet "works" as new media, in part, by allowing a whole pile of people to publish a whole pile of things. Then, what's really interesting is naturally selected from that pile. The rest is effectively buried. New gadgetry follows a similar trajectory; it's used for a short time, goes out of style, and unceremoniously dumped into landfill. It's a model of consume and discard, inflow and outflow.

But can you imagine if the historical foundation of software had been "throwaway" code meant to work for a short time ? We wouldn't have operating systems, languages, or even the Internet as we know it. We'd be stumbling over our basic tools, struggling with each and every new system just to get it started or keep it running. Yet lower quality software is often developed for perceived short term gain, with higher eventual costs punted into the not too distant future. It sounds vaguely reflective of our current environmental predicament: natural resources and people consumed to the point where the earth can't sustain it, often to pad the landfill.

Here's just a small sampling of the idioms, tools and technologies that collectively form the core of the software universe: basic algorithms like heapsort, tools like C-compilers, utilities like 'diff' or 'grep'. Even the way search and replace works in your favorite editor. (The list could go on: debugging, memory allocation, multithreading, hardware abstraction, or TCP/IP.) Just one simple Google search or birdlike 'tweet' relies on all those things having worked and been cemented into place years ago. But these foundations didn't just sprout into place in some kind of "Big Bang"; they weren't products of rapid-fire project development. Rather, they have evolved over eons of time (in the software universe that means since about 1960). They matured, requiring patient development in academia, government, and in forward-looking companies' research labs.

Software, on the other hand, is a lot more expensive. Good custom software is tailor-made. It's not disposable; in fact it can come to reflect the uniqueness, the character, the "story" of your company.

So why can't we adopt a software factory approach that spits this year's model out from the production line, pre-fated to obsolescence in a short while ? Because software is not hardware, and it's also not "consumable content". Hardware is mass produced, and generally comes in a few off-the-rack, disposable styles. And the information we consume with our various gadgets goes in and out of style even more rapidly than that. Software, on the other hand, is a lot more expensive. Good custom software is tailor-made. It's not disposable; in fact it can come to reflect the uniqueness, the character, the "story" of your company. It has to work. It has to fit. You don't have time to try on 1,000 suits in the same way that you can sample content online, in the hope that one or two will feel good on you. While media platforms and technologies change, what makes a good story does not. The intricately woven story contains the real value, and good stories stand the test of time.

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